Jeff Risdon. 29th July, 2009 - 9:45 am
2008 record: 9-7, 2nd in NFC North
Key Stats: Turnover Ratio: +5, Sack Differential: -1, Point Differential: +25
Coming In: QB Jay Cutler, LB Pisa Tinoisamoa, T Orlando Pace, T Kevin Shaffer, OL Frank Omiyale, S Josh Bullocks
Going Out: QB Kyle Orton, QB Rex Grossman, WR Marty Booker, T John St. Clair, T Jon Tait
Key Rookies: DT Jarron Gilbert, WR Juaquin Iglesias, WR Johnny Knox
QB: The Bears bit the bullet and made the huge trade to bring in Jay Culter from the Broncos. Based on his results thus far and his remaining upside, Cutler immediately becomes the best Bears quarterback in the last 20 years, perhaps much longer depending on your feelings on Jim McMahon. Cutler is blessed with all the physical tools you could ask for in a franchise QB -- he's big, has a cannon arm with good accuracy all over the field, good mobility, and innate pocket awareness. His arm allows offensive coordinator Ron Turner to open up the playbook with more downfield throws and tighter throwing windows. Cutler does have his detriments, however, ones that Bears fans are a little too quick to dismiss. Much like Brett Favre, he will trust his arm too much and force bad throws into coverage; Cutler leads the league in percentage of passes intercepted over the last three seasons. He also lacks touch on shorter throws, particularly those to the middle of the field. He whined and sulked his way out of Denver and has earned the "immature" label, and glimpses are already apparent in his brief time in Chicago. He is certainly an upgrade and gives the Bears a legit weapon at quarterback, something they've sorely lacked save the "Good Rex" flashes during their Super Bowl run.
The Bears have to pray Cutler is as durable as he's shown thus far, because the backups are Brett Basanez and Caleb Hanie. Basanez is from Northwestern, so he knows the conditions of Soldier Field and showed some degree of accuracy in his preseason performances in Carolina. He lacks arm strength and patience. Hanie showed potential last preseason and is well-liked in the locker room. Seemingly a prime candidate for a veteran backup, the Bears have put all their eggs in the Cutler basket.
RB: GM Jerry Angelo found a real keeper in Matt Forte, last year's second-round pick. Forte notched over 1,200 rushing yards using a style that harkens to Marcus Allen -- long stride with great burst and the ability to bounce off contact while navigating between the tackles. He showed great innate vision and an understanding of how to take what the defense gave him. Forte was also the Bears leading receiver with 63 catches, and the scouting book on him coming out of Tulane regarding his great hands was legit. He fared better than most rookie backs in pass protect mode as well. Forte should challenge for a Pro Bowl berth, if he can sustain the heavy workload. Over the last three seasons (two in college) he's handled the ball an astounding 1,282 times. That could be a major issue, because behind Forte the cupboard is pretty bare.
Kevin Jones is the backup, and the Bears are very optimistic he is now fully recovered from his latest knee injury. Jones is talented enough to be a starter, but he simply cannot stay healthy and his physical style doesn't do him any favors. His various foot, knee, and ankle injuries have taken a cumulative toll on his very good talent. Behind Jones is the "other" Adrian Peterson, who has never developed into the third down back they hoped, and tiny Garrett Wolfe, still trying to break his first NFL tackle. Fullback Jason McKie is a dependable blocker, better at pass protection than clearing running holes. Jason Davis is essentially the same player as McKie, so they do have depth at fullback.
WR/TE: The Bears can stake a very unusual claim -- their best two receivers are their two tight ends. In Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark, Chicago has a very strong pass-catching duo. Olsen can stretch the seam and is very adept at getting separation from coverage. He finished the season scoring in three of the last four games and appeared to adjust to being played more physically. The duo combined for 95 receptions without much wide receiver help. Clark is a very reliable possession receiver who has a quicker first step and break than for what he gets credit. Neither are great blockers, but Clark is solid and Olsen showed improvement as the year wore on. The team has high hopes for second-year man Kellen Davis, a very athletic big man still learning the intricacies of the position. You could do a lot worse for a #3 tight end than the former Michigan State hoopster.
Wide receiver, on the other hand, is a major question mark. Devin Hester will start camp as the #1 wide receiver, but in a good corps he's a third receiver/slot guy. The potential is there, as he does have very good speed and took a big step forward in his progress as a route runner in 2008. But he's undersized and not at all physical, and he makes too many catches more difficult than necessary. He will remind Jay Cutler of a less-physical Eddie Royal, so that could work out quite well. The issue is that there's no Brandon Marshall for him to play off of. Earl Bennett didn't catch a pass as a rookie, struggling to learn the playbook and with the physicality of NFL defenses. The 2008 third rounder enters camp as the #2, with rookie third rounder Juaquin Iglesias hot on his heels. Another rookie, blazing fifth rounder Johnny Knox, has impressed early and will see action in multiple wideout sets (or beat out Iglesias and Bennett for the #2 gig). That's three rookies and a slot guy as the receiving corps, with hard-working Rashied Davis in the mix as well.
I like Iglesias and his size/speed package, but it's asking a lot for a rookie wideout to completely change offensive styles and quarterback velocity and be a 60-plus catch impact receiver on a playoff-caliber team. He reminds me of Santonio Holmes (though a little bigger and a half-step slower), who struggled at times before becoming a Super Bowl MVP. One Bears insider told me Knox and Iglesias remind him of Terrell Owens and JJ Stokes in San Francisco, where Stokes (Iglesais) was the heralded draftee but Owens (Knox) wound up being the much better pro. With a gunslinging like Cutler, it's important to find a rhythm and level of trust with the wideouts. How quickly that develops and how quickly the youngsters develop will determine just how big of a negative, if at all, the wide receiver spot is for this team.
OL: This was a problem spot a year ago, but the Bears made a couple of real savvy, underrated moves this offseason that should pay dividends. Taking over at left tackle is venerable veteran Orlando Pace, who has fresh legs for a 33-year old and can still wall off outside rushers with the best of 'em. His issue is staying healthy, something he has not been able to do for the past three years. Pace also doesn't get much of a run block surge anymore, though the man he's replacing, John St. Clair, couldn't do that either. Right tackle Jon Tait retired, and he will be replaced by either 2008 first rounder Chris Williams or former Brown Kevin Shaffer. The team hopes Williams is recovered from the back injury that stymied his rookie year and is ready to rumble. A better pass blocker than run blocker, Williams probably fits better on the left side, which could leave the starting spot for the pugnacious Shaffer. One of those guys who gets by on maximum effort and sheer size more than talent, Shaffer is a worthy starting right tackle and will be an upgrade over the injured Tait.
Center Olin Kretuz is still a pretty good player, but his age and lack of size are both catching up with him. This is a big year for Kreutz, a great leader and teammate who showed signs of decline in 2008. If he slips further, the Bears offense will be very vulnerable up the gut. Lead-footed Roberto Garza returns at right guard; he and Kreutz are diametric opposites that blend together well, though when one can't help the other it's usually Garza winding up in loads of trouble. The left guard spot is an open competition between underwhelming Josh Beekman and Panther import Frank Omiyale. Beekman has never fit well with Ron Turner's offense, as he is both undersized and a step slower than needed. Omiyale (say "oatmeal" without the "t") rarely saw the field in Carolina but apparently showed enough for the Bears to pay him very well to compete for a starting job. He's very big, very upright, and making the transition from tackle. The Bears are one quality player deeper on the line and should be better at both tackle spots, though if Pace and Kreutz can't meet expectations this unit will once again be a significant problem.
DL: The Bears hired D-line guru Rod Marinelli to improve the defensive line, fresh from his disastrous turn as Lions head coach. While I think the world of Marinelli as a man and a teacher, he is miscast as a savior in Chicago. The players already know the scheme, and Marinelli adheres strictly to the base Tampa-2, demanding perfect technique and execution on every snap. For youngsters like Marcus Harrison and rookie Jarron Gilbert his teaching will certainly help, but his hiring is not a panacea.
Much of what happens here depends on the knees and desire of defensive tackle Tommie Harris. When healthy, Harris is a dominant player against both the run and pass and requires constant double teams. Few interior linemen can match his quickness in getting into the backfield, but he can also anchor against the run very well. But his knees are the epitome of the word "balky," and he rubbed many teammates the wrong way with his unsavory attitude and questionable (to some) work ethic. Without a dominant three-technique tackle, the defensive scheme simply does not work, and whether Harris can return to dominance is a major question.
The Bears do have some solid complementary players in Marcus Harrison and ends Alex Brown and Israel Idonije. Harrison played reasonably well as a rookie, handling the nose tackle spot capably despite being lighter than desired (that's relative when you weigh 308!). He has enough quickness to slide to the three-technique and could blossom into a very good player. Brown led the team in sacks (with six) despite not being a real smooth pass rusher, but his real value is in his run defense and football IQ -- both exceptional. He's rarely out of position and has worked very hard at improving his ability to anchor the edge. Idonije plays extremely upright but noticeably improved in 2008, and he can play any spot on the line except nose tackle. His quickness and effort make him an integral part of the nickel package. Rookie Jarron Gilbert enters the league as an athletic freak (YouTube Gilbert jumping out of a pool) and the reigning NCAA tackles-for-loss leader. He has a rep for not handling overly physical play well, but Marinelli should beat that out of him. The Bears are a great fit for Gilbert because he can fill part of a rotation instead of playing every down. His size and athleticism should allow him, like Idonije, to play multiple positions. They need both to play well and often, as defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek is too fragile to count on and Anthony Adams is best served as a limited-use backup.
Veteran Wali Ogunleye is nearing the end of his Bears tenure, which could come quicker than expected if he can't show more burst than last year, when he netted just five sacks and routinely got pushed backwards in run defense. Mark Anderson appears to be a one-year wonder, as he has shown very little since his 12-sack rookie year in 2006. Teams caught on to how to handle his one move, and he's never developed any counter moves. The Tampa-2 scheme demands getting pressure from the ends without blitzing, and this group has to play better or else the Bears will once again rank dead last in defensive snaps.
LB: The base Tampa-2 defense the Bears employ relies heavily on having dynamic linebackers making smart plays. And in Lance Briggs, the Bears have a very dynamic weak-side backer who can make plays all over the field. He has earned his perennial Pro Bowl status by consistently making the correct read and exploding to the ball and finishing the play. Briggs is in his prime and should have another monster season for the Bears. Chicago made a great under-the-radar move in signing Pisa Tinoisamoa to play on the strong side. The Rams leading tackler in four of the last six years, the speedy Tinoisamoa closes quickly and hits harder than you'd expect for a relative lightweight. There are questions around him -- he's small, doesn't get off blocks well, and he's forced just five turnovers in the past three seasons, plus he's moving from the weak side to the strong side. The Hawaiian is usurping Hunter Hillenmeyer, who will still see time in coverage situations and will be a better asset as a much-needed depth player than a starter.
Brian Urlacher still mans the middle, but this is not your older brother's Brian Urlacher. Much more straight-linish and not able to flow through traffic or avoid blocks well anymore, Urlacher gets by more on reputation than production these days. #54 still lays the lumber with the best of them, and his coverage skills remain above-average when they don't ask him to drop too deep. His toughness and leadership are still intact too, but Urlacher is no longer a Pro Bowl caliber player, and the end could be coming quickly. That's a very real problem, because the Bears chronically lack linebacker depth. It's better this year than in years past, with Hillenmeyer and athletic Nick Roach as the backups, but they lose a great deal when Briggs and/or Urlacher come off the field. Urlacher is the only linebacker that weighs over 238 pounds, which raises issues if the defensive line cannot occupy all the blockers.
DB: The starters are Charles Tillman and Nate Vasher, though Tillman's recent back surgery threatens to wipe out most of his season. That would be a huge setback for the defense, because the Bears rely heavily on his physical style and his run support. "Peanut" fits the zone very well and has good size and strength, though his closing speed and deep coverage skills are subpar. Vasher played his way to the bench last year and will have to work hard to get his gig back, though he has more talent than any defensive back on the team. A playmaking ballhawk with great confidence, Vasher got caught guessing and taking too many false steps for a defense predicated on assignment execution. Vasher's fragility -- he missed significant time each of the last three years -- leaves the door open for Corey Graham or rookie D.J. Moore to step up. Graham played well in spurts last season and is the best tackler of the group. He is still learning how to play within the zone and must use his hands less by improving his footwork. Moore slid down draft boards on account of his lack of size (5'8") and physicality to his game. He could fit best as an inside nickel back, though he too will need to learn how to play in a regimented zone. Danieal Manning played well in that capacity last year, though he remains one of those players where you can visibly watch him process the play before he reacts. Manning will likely get the bulk of playing time in Tillman's absence.
Safety is a very grey area. Kevin Payne will start at strong safety, and inside the box he's a very good asset with his physical style and love of hitting. Payne thrives at cleaning up tackles when the carrier makes a move to get around someone else. He's a liability in coverage and often looks like he's playing with blinders on, however. Payne is also coming off shoulder surgery, always a dicey proposition for a player of his style. The free safety spot is a major question mark. Free agent Josh Bullocks and young Craig Steltz are in open competition to fill the very big shoes of Mike Brown, who was outstanding the past few years when he wasn't injured, which wasn't often. Bullocks has great measurables but has never put it together, and because his twin brother Daniel suffers the same problem, it's not likely to improve. Steltz is a big hitter but often looks like he's running in quicksand, and he fails to wrap after the hit. Neither is particularly smooth in coverage, though Bullocks does an adequate job of not letting receivers get behind him. Trumaine McBride flashed some talent and ability in 2008 but he's undersized and needs polish. Glenn Earl was one of the weak points in one of the worst secondaries in NFL history in Houston, so Bears fans should temper their enthusiasm about what depth he brings.
Special Teams: The true hallmark of the Bears under Lovie Smith has been their exceptional special teams units. Across the board, these units have excelled. But a dropoff started last season with the departure of Brendan Ayanbadejo, perhaps the best player in coverage units in the NFL (sorry, Josh Cribbs!). The five-man wedge they employed is now a penalty, so some tweaking will have to be done for the return packages, though the Bears have a stable of very good return men. Devin Hester fell off with his increased role in the offense, but he is still the best punt return man in NFL history after just three seasons. Danieal Manning and Nate Vasher are both accomplished kick returners, and rookie Knox has great potential in that role as well.
Robbie Gould has mastered the tricky Soldier Field winds and gets better late in games. He gets good height on his kickoffs, an underappreciated assist to the coverage units. Brad Maynard is one of the league's more reliable punters; while he's not going to boom many 55 yarders, he's also not going to shank many 28 yarders either.
I don't include this in all the previews, but when talking about the Bears it's critical to bring up the coaching situation. Lovie Smith is out of "save your job" cards, and he knows it. That's why he has assumed greater control over the defense. By bringing in Rod Marinelli, one can only assume that means a strict return to the more vanilla Tampa-2 scheme. The problem is that offenses have figured out how to beat it, and it only works with flawless execution by very good players at all three levels of the defense. I'm not sold that the Bears have that week-in and week-out. Smith is one of the most inept in-game coaches in the league, and he hired one of the few who was worse to help him run his defense. Clock management and overly predictable play calling have marred the Lovie years; the Bears were the third easiest team to predict the play in 2008 according to QB1 stats (a game in bars where patrons use remote machines to anticipate the base play call and direction), and have not ranked lower than seventh in the last four years. In short, the Bears are too easy to prepare to play.
3 Keys To The Season:
1. Can a defense that struggled to get off the field in 2008 (they faced the most opposing snaps in the league) mesh with an offense that figures to be more hit-and-miss?
2. Jay Cutler needs to be everything the most optimistic Bears fans believe he is in working with a greenhorn receiving cast and a dealing with a hyper-critical local media.
3. The play of Tommie Harris and Brian Urlacher. If both can dial up seasons like 2006 and early 2007, the defense will be quite good. The Harris/Urlacher package of 2008 will mean this team will be lucky to match the 9-7 win total.
Forecast: My initial impression was that the Cutler trade was lipstick on an increasingly lame pig, but so long as he's up to the task and Forte stays healthy, this team is a legit NFC contender. But I do have serious reservations. The front four must get a much better pass rush, the revamped offensive line must gel quickly, and Cutler must assume the mantle of team leader right away. All of those are open questions -- that's why they play the games. Fortunately for Chicago the schedule isn't brutal, and this team has tangible confidence and urgency. They're not as good as most Bears fans think they are, but this team will compete for the NFC North title, or short of that, a Wild Card berth. Note that I said "compete," not "earn." Chicago finishes Year One of the Cutler era 9-7 and just outside the playoff window.
- Jeff Risdon is RealGM's senior football writer. He may be reached at Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com